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Bombers hit U.N. base in Afghanistan

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Four Taliban suicide bombers dressed as police and women attacked the main United Nations compound in western Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, but there were no casualties among U.N. staff.

Afghan policemen investigate at the site of a suicide attack at the U.N. compound in Herat October 23, 2010. REUTERS/Mohammad Shoib

The attack with rockets, machine guns and bombers hit the U.N. compound in Herat, a commercial hub and the largest city in the country’s west where Taliban and other Islamist insurgents are usually less active than in other areas.

Afghan forces and U.N. security guards at the compound repelled the insurgents. Two attackers, including a car bomber, blew themselves up at the entrance and another detonated his bomb just inside, while a fourth was shot and killed, police, government and U.N. officials said.

It was the highest profile attack on the United Nations since last year and will raise questions about security in a city that NATO officials believe could be among the first to see Afghan forces take responsibility for security from NATO troops.

“This was a complex attack with rockets, machine guns plus suicide bombers. The attack was repelled, they did not succeed,” U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura told Reuters.

“No U.N. staff were wounded,” he said.

Two Afghan police officers were reportedly wounded in the attack, he said.

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At least one of the attackers was dressed in all-encompassing burqas worn by many Afghan women and others were in local Afghan police uniforms.

Despite the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, violence from Afghanistan’s war against the Taliban is at its most intense since the conflict began in 2001 when U.S.-backed Afghan troops ousted the Islamists from power.

The conflict is weighing on U.S. President Barack Obama and his NATO allies as casualties among foreign forces mount and Washington looks to start bringing back troops from July next year and steadily hand over security to Afghan forces.

One of Afghanistan’s largest cities, with a population of about 3 million, Herat is under the regional command of Italian troops and has enjoyed relative calm compared with more restive parts of the country.

Earlier this year, NATO’s regional commander said districts within Herat were ready to see their security responsibility transferred to Afghan forces.

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No ground troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force were involved in the operation to clear the compound after the attack, spokesman Major Michael Johnson said.

A Taliban commander, Mullah Bilal, claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the group. One fighter had blown himself up and others had entered the compound, he told Reuters by telephone.

It was the worst assault against the United Nations since October 2009, when militants attacked a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul and five foreign U.N. staff were killed. That attack prompted the United Nations to evacuate hundreds of foreign workers.

In a report on Afghanistan in June, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the organization was still a potential target for militant attacks, and it would be cutting the size of its international staff.

The U.N. mission already suffers chronic staff shortages and Ban has said candidates’ reluctance to move to Afghanistan because of security fears was hampering aid delivery.

“This is a delicate period where everyone is expecting asymmetric attacks. We were not taken by surprise,” de Mistura said. “The U.N. is here to stay and stay with the Afghans.”

Insurgents have stepped up attacks beyond their strongholds in the south and east of the country. More than 2,000 foreign troops have been killed since the war began, more than half of those in the past two years. Most were U.S. troops.

In southern Kandahar, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonated explosives inside the city, killing one civilian and wounding two others, said Zelmay Ayoubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch and Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Paul Tait and Peter Graff